I sure wish I knew what the Jasper County School Board is planning to build. In 2003, the Board of Education voted to close and reorganize some schools. This was a major decision, and the vote came after a series of a dozen public meetings – nine scheduled by the district – over a two year period. At each of those meetings, the superintendent stood in front of the people, explained the situation, accepted questions, and provided answers. Since that time, the district’s enrollment has declined by more than 250 students, the tax base has dropped by more than $30 million, and the future of the power plant is uncertain. Despite those developments, I think the board is planning to spend more than $25 million to add 20 classrooms and a gym that seats 850 people.

I say, “I think” this is their plan because they’ve never really told us. Last fall, shortly before the vote on the proposed sales tax increase, they held two sessions to explain why the sales tax proposal was a good thing. There was no formal presentation, just some illustrations and a chance to talk with board members. Three building options, with costs ranging from $15 million to $22 million, were presented. My wife and I attended both sessions. When we asked why they proposed adding classrooms, we were told that the board members thought we should have a middle school, and they wanted to be able to host a holiday basketball tournament. (Later, as I reviewed the cost figures they provided, I found that the two options that included adding classrooms significantly underestimated the costs by omitting Health Life Safety items included in the cheapest option. The cost of the most expensive option was actually more than $27 million.)

At those fall sessions, we were assured that the three options were simply ideas that were being proposed as conversation starters. No decision on construction had been made, and the board would reach out to the residents of the district for input before making a decision. However, at the economic development meeting in January, 2019, the superintendent stated that bidding would start within the next two months, and the district would be breaking ground for building projects at both the elementary and the high school by August. A special board meeting was held on February 28. One of the agenda items was, “Approval of contract/Project Authorization Exhibit with Farnsworth for a Middle School Addition, HS Renovation and Additions, Elementary Addition and Renovation.” Board minutes on the district website provide no information on just what is contemplated. No community meetings have been held.

If you live in Jasper County, ask your school board members some questions:

What are you planning to do?

How much will it cost?

How will this affect our taxes? What if the power plant closes?

Why do we NEED to build twenty new classrooms?

Why do we NEED a new gym that seats 850 people?

Where will you get the additional $500,000 to $750,000 per year for salaries and benefits for the new staff members for these classrooms?

With the acute teacher shortage in this area, will you be able to find the additional qualified staff you need for these classrooms?

Why have there been no community meetings to hear from residents of the district before taking such a major step?

What’s the rush?